Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Some Gut Feelings and Observations on Christian Unity

This week is the week of prayer for Christian ecumenism and it must be working since even Josh S. has recently declared his conviction that with regard to Christians in other church bodies, "We must see them and treat them as our friends, as fellow members of Christ." His discussion of Greenslade's Schism in the Early Church has raised some important points. (And I would like to thank Bill Tighe for sending me a copy. Thanks, Bill!) What follows is a few observations on Christian unity, that over the years I have found myself unable to avoid:

1) Greenslade (and Josh S.) are right: the idea of baptism being valid outside the church is absurd theologically. If Lutherans recognize Catholic or Baptist baptisms (and we do), then we recognize that they are part of the Christian church. If we deny Mormon baptisms then we are saying they are not part of the Christian church.

2) Everybody believes in the concept of the invisible church, even Catholics and Orthodox. Orthodox are fond of saying, "We know there is no salvation outside the church, but what we don't know is where the church ends." This is a doctrine of the invisible church -- if you don't know where it ends then you can't "see" it, and what can't be "seen" is invisible. Nobody (or at least nobody that anybody takes seriously) believes that my communion, my visible church, defines the limit of the only-saving church. So if the invisible church idea is a Reformation innovation, then it is a Reformation innovation that the church at large has come to accept. The most fundamental dispute remaining is the question of whether there is really a visible church, in the sense of an organization with the power of dispensing salvation through baptism and the power of the keys. Catholics, Orthodox, and (Augsburg) Evangelicals say yes, Reformed and revivalistic Christians say no.

3) Putting 1 and 2 together, everyone therefore agrees that valid baptism defines the visible church as it is understood in the Nicene Creed. For a Catholic to say, yes the Augsburg Evangelicals have valid baptisms, and yes, they may be saved through such baptism, but no they are not part of the visible church because they don't have true bishops or in communion with the Pope, is simply to a) contradict themselves and say salvation is visible because it depends on baptism but is invisible because you can't "see" where the church is, and b) to go against the plain meaning of the Nicene Creed. One church and one baptism for the remission of sins, which was always understood at the time as meaning that if you are not baptized in the true church you go to hell on your death. (Exceptions about baptism of blood or desire don't alter the case.) Ditto, of course, if the Augsburg Evangelicals say that about the Roman Catholics.

4) The New Testament church knows nothing of people who insist on remaining outside the one, true, visible church who are not going to hell. This means two things: 1) if you say a convinced member of a Christian church is not going to hell, then you mean that this Christian's church body in which he or she is baptized and takes communion is a limb of the visible church. It also means 2) that no rule for how Augsburg Evangelicals should treat Presbyterians, or Orthodox should treat Catholics can be established simply by consulting the Scriptures (or church tradition), unless you want to go with the "don't even eat with them" rule of 1 Corinthians 6.

5) The idea that the Islamic persecution of the Armenians and Copts is not a Christian issue, is absurd. This in turn means that the Armenians and Copts are in fact Christians. ( What I mean is, Islamic persecution of Baha'is in Iran or Chinese persecution of Tibetan Buddhism, for example, is a human rights issue, but not a Christian issue. But if we say Coptic Christians being persecuted in Egypt is something more than a human rights issue to us who call ourselves Christian, then we are saying the Copts are Christian.) And since they reject Chalcedon, the idea that Chalcedon is a defining creed of Christians is thereby shown to be false (or rather it is shown we don't really believe it). The Nicene creed on the other hand retains that status -- it is an amazing law of history that churches which explicitly reject it either disappear (the Arians) or rapidly become clearly non-Christian (the Unitarians). If this is the case, then the great schism (that is the first schism between Christians that remained unresolved) took place in the fifth century, not in the eleventh, or the sixteenth century. I may hold to Chalcedon and to the Augsburg confession, but I cannot legitimately make one or the other a defining mark of the extent of the Christian church.

6) At least for those who believe in the visible church, the idea of "restoration" is a heresy. The one crystal-clear thing we know about baptism and absolution is, "you can't baptize or absolve yourself." This means that if I was validly baptized, my baptism must have been performed in a limb of the Christian church. And that body must itself have received baptized from another such body, all the way back to the apostles. As a result, any limb of the visible church must recognize the church-ness of the body from which it came. Once a body loses Christianity (say, the Unitarians, or the Mormons) it cannot be "restored". If the Reformed then recognize baptism as a visible sacrament of salvation, they will by that same token have to recognized the Catholic church as a Christian church and abandon the idea of the "Great Apostasy."

7) Everyone agrees that apostolic succession by itself has no influence on orthodoxy. Within the Protestant world the Anglican communion and the Church of Sweden are proof enough. But within the non-Protestant world, Catholics are committed to apostolic succession not being meaningful apart from communion with the Pope, Orthodox that it is not meaningful apart from the seven ecumenical councils, the Armenians and the Copts that it is not meaningful apart from rejecting Chalcedon, and so on. To put it differently, everyone who believes in apostolic succession is in practice committed to the viewpoint that in the past vast numbers of validly ordained Christian bishops have taken themselves and their flock into schism, and that numerous ones have also taken themselves and their flock into heresy, but that no one who holds to this particular church's "extra-apostolic succession" principle (such as Papal communion, etc.) has ever gone into schism or heresy.

Now all of this will strike professed believers in the Pontificator's Fourth Law ("A church that does not understand itself as the Church, outside of which there is no salvation, is not the Church but a denomination or sect") as a recycling of the exploded "branch theory" but of course, as was already pointed out in 1) and 2) neither he nor any non-Feneyite Catholic actually believes what they claim to believe in. Rather they only pretend to believe it, but deny it everytime they in good conscience eat with or pray with a non-"whatever their church is" Christian.

Crossposted at Here We Stand